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Japan's denial of immigration reality echoes Germany's experience with 'guest workers'

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

The recent sweeping revision to the immigration law opens a gateway for as many as 345,000 migrant workers to enter Japan in the next five years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, has repeatedly said the new visa system does not constitute an immigration policy.

“This system is needed for talented foreign personnel to play bigger roles in Japan amid the nationwide labor shortage,” Abe said in justifying the revision at a Dec. 10 news conference.

“We will clearly present a cap for the numbers and time frame for acceptance. This is not an immigration policy.”

Experts say what his denial represents is much more than the Abe administration’s attitude toward immigration. Rather, they say, it epitomizes the contradictory realities surrounding it: Even though the government is essentially in denial of their existence, Japan has already brought in hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and the ratio of long-term foreign residents is expected to keep rising.

Akihiro Koido, a sociology professor who studies immigration policies at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, said the law is an immigration policy regardless of Abe’s staunch denial.

Koido compared the current state of immigration policy in Japan to Germany’s gastarbeiters, the guest workers adopted in the 1950s to boost its war-ravaged economy. When Germany concluded a labor treaty with its neighbors, Koido said, the premise was that it would receive migrant workers only on a temporary basis.

“Back then, Germany denied that those guest workers were immigrants,” he said. “In reality, though, Germany had to change its interpretation of immigrants after having accepted many of them.”

Koido explained that when Germany announced it would terminate the system in the 1970s, many feared they wouldn’t be able to enter the country again, which actually encouraged them to stay and have families, accelerating the growth of long-term settlers. Before that, the foreign population in Germany had already jumped from 686,000 in 1961 to 1.8 million in 1967, according to the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training.

Germany eventually enacted a law in 2005 that focused on long-term residency and integration, reducing the number of residency types to two and specifying that applicants must learn the German language and culture as an important part of the process. The 2005 law is deemed significant in that it declared Germany as “a country of immigrants” half a century after the introduction of the gastarbeiter.

Japan is actually following the early German policy that was unwilling to acknowledge gastarbeiters as immigrants, instead of devising more contemporary, progressive and effective policies, Koido said.

During Diet deliberations, Abe kept insisting that the revision would not open the door for immigrants to settle in Japan permanently.

The revised immigration law, however, will introduce two new types of working visas, one valid up to five years and the other renewable indefinitely with a legal employment contract.

Those in the first category cannot bring their families with them. Those in the second category, which the government describes as for people with higher skills, are able to bring their families.

“We are not thinking about adopting a policy that will accept a certain number of foreigners with their dependents indefinitely to sustain the country’s population,” Abe said last year.

Political analysts have speculated Abe’s refusal to say the “I-word” is an effort to appease the part of his conservative base that’s skeptical of immigration, even though that stance puts him at odds with the part that desperately needs it — the business community.

Koido said the government, even before the current administration, has been reluctant to acknowledge Japan was hosting immigrants. He cited 1990s immigration reform that widened the legal status for those seeking work and made it easier for foreign people, particularly those of Japanese descent, to come to Japan for work.

The government at that time also refused to characterize the reform as immigration policy.

“The Japanese government hasn’t actively defined immigration policy, but that doesn’t mean the country didn’t have immigrants in the ’90s,” Koido said.

“The logic that long-term residents are not immigrants doesn’t make sense. Even though Japan didn’t automatically become a country of immigrants, an immigration policy essentially existed around that time.”

The central government’s reluctance in acknowledging immigration shifted the strain of developing integration policies to the municipalities, Koido added.

Yasutomo Suzuki, the mayor of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where about 20,000 foreign residents make a living, stressed that municipalities have proactively sought to accommodate immigrants. The Diet’s tug of war over the use of the term is out of touch with reality, Suzuki said.

Justice Ministry data shows that 29 percent of all 2.56 million non-Japanese residing here with legal status — about 749,000 people — were permanent residents as of the end of 2017. In 1997, only about 82,000 out of about 1.48 million people were permanent residents.

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